Sigh for the alder’s un­sung great­ness

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Mark Grif­fiths

AKINGFISHER has de­cided to rule the brook near our house and cho­sen a low-hang­ing alder branch for a throne. It sits there for ages, per­fectly still, un­til it fixes on a tar­get and dives, an iri­des­cent streak into the mist-coiled wa­ter. Watch­ing it, I’m re­minded that, rather than the ide­alised mem­ory of some long-ago sum­mer, ‘hal­cyon days’ used to mean a pe­riod of win­ter weather gen­tle enough for these birds to set about their busi­ness.

Here in Ox­ford, such spells are an­nounced by our na­tive alder, Al­nus gluti­nosa. Its male catkins are still weeks away from the pollen-sift­ing state charm­ingly de­scribed by the El­iz­a­bethan plants­man Henry Lyte as ‘the blowinges of Alder are long tag­glets’, but they lengthen fast in these milder pe­ri­ods, paint­ing the boughs with a mix­ture of grey­ish pink and liv­er­ish red, which, much as it re­sem­bles iron ore in colour, is a 24-carat as­sur­ance that spring is at hand. Mean­while, last year’s female catkins per­sist, squat, black­ened and des­ic­cated, but re­plete with seeds that draw hosts of non-pis­ca­tory birds— here­abouts, most no­tably siskins, which make golden may­hem among the alder’s char­coal cones.

To­gether with the ot­ters that ex­ca­vate holts among its roots, these birds present a strong case for treat­ing A. gluti­nosa with rev­er­ence, but it is also uniquely beau­ti­ful. No other in­dige­nous hard­wood has so pyra­mi­dal a crown and such level tiers of boughs. It de­vi­ates from this reg­u­lar­ity only to lean grace­fully to­wards the wa­ter that is its pref­er­ence and the great source of its dis­tinc­tion. This is Bri­tain’s aquatic tree, our equiv­a­lent of swamp cypress and man­grove, ca­pa­ble of flour­ish­ing in sod­den ground and bole-deep wa­ter, thanks to its breath­ing bark and ni­tro­gen­fix­ing root nod­ules. It abounds in our river-run city, not only pro­vid­ing havens for wildlife and dal­ly­ing pun­ters, but also sta­bil­is­ing, con­tain­ing and en­rich­ing banks and wet­land. In these flood-prone times, it ought to be planted more widely else­where.

Also im­per­vi­ous to wa­ter, alder wood was thought ideal for mak­ing clogs and boat keels and erect­ing dwellings in oth­er­wise un­fea­si­ble places. As Richard Sur­flet wrote in The Coun­trey Farme (1616), it was used for the foun­da­tions of build­ings ‘which are laid in the rivers, fens, or other stand­ing wa­ters, be­cause it never rot­teth in the wa­ter, but lasteth as it were for ever’. Al­though its tim­ber, alas, is not eter­nally im­per­ish­able, this is not quite as hy­per­bolic as it sounds. Much of the glory of Venice sits upon piles of alder.

Im­per­vi­ous to wa­ter, alder wood was ideal for mak­ing clogs and boat keels

Al­nus, then, is hand­some, use­ful and quasi-mag­i­cal in its habits and habi­tat, yet it fares poorly in our un­usu­ally tree-lov­ing lit­er­a­ture. As ‘alor’, ‘aler’ and sim­i­lar, it makes ap­pear­ances in Old English, but none of these is ex­actly prais­ing or po­etic. Its pres­tige scarcely im­proves there­after. The most pos­i­tive in­stance that I know comes from Ed­mund Spenser, writ­ing in the 1590s: ‘Keep­ing my sheepe amongst the cooly shade,/of the greene alders by the Mul­laes shore’ (that is, along the River Aw­beg, which bor­dered his Ir­ish es­tate). This is scarcely ful­some.

Other po­ets merely give it a name check in lists of trees. Con­sider Lau­rence Eus­den, Bri­tain’s youngest Lau­re­ate yet, ap­pointed in 1718 at the age of 30. If at all, he tends to be re­mem­bered for a snatch of verse, a de­scrip­tion of a grove that he wrote five years ear­lier. And that is re­mem­bered only be­cause Alexan­der Pope quoted it in 1728 in a trea­tise on how not to write poetry. Clearly a stinker in Pope’s view, its last line is ‘And to the sigh­ing alders, alders sigh’.

Still, now that some of our finest writ­ers are de­vot­ing them­selves anew to Bri­tain’s trees, let’s hope they’ll do some­thing to im­prove the sigh­ing alder’s stand­ing.

As for the rest of us, we might plant Al­nus more of­ten be­side lakes, rivers and in land­scapes sus­cep­ti­ble to wa­ter­log­ging. The non-na­tive grey alder (A. in­cana) boasts a splen­did cul­ti­var—aurea, named for its char­treuse young fo­liage and old-gold au­tumn tints, but loveli­est around now when its twigs turn to sun­set tones and its tag­glets to coral tresses. It varies in qual­ity: the best that I know come from Bar­cham Trees (www.bar­cham.co.uk).

Two selections of the na­tive A. gluti­nosa also merit spec­i­men or av­enue plant­ing: Lacini­ata, with dark, dra­mat­i­cally slashed leaves, and Im­pe­ri­alis, with fo­liage of fil­i­gree feath­er­i­ness. That said, I find our lo­cal wild alder the most at­trac­tive of all, in its quiet un­bred beauty, and so, hap­pily, does the king­fisher these hal­cyon days.

Mark Grif­fiths is editor of the New Royal Horticultural So­ci­ety Dic­tionary of Gar­den­ing

Hal­cyon days: a red­poll alights on a clus­ter of Al­nus gluti­nosa or alder catkins

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